RENO, Nev. — When they were both members of the Western Athletic Conference, there was no better matchup in the league than Nevada and Utah State. From 2005 to 2012 when the two schools coexisted in the WAC, they won at least a share of every single regular-season title and combined to make eight trips to the NCAA tournament.
With Utah State moving into the Mountain West this season, the two teams share familiar space again. Instead of competing for the MWC title, however, both the Aggies (11-3, 1-1 Mountain West) and Wolf Pack (8-8, 3-0) are looking to break through in the league.
Nevada went 3-13 in its first year of MWC play last season, but has already equaled that win mark this season thanks in large part to terrific play from guard Deonte Burton, who leads the conference and ranks eighth nationally in scoring (22.3 points per game). Burton shredded rival UNLV for 29 points and did not have a single turnover in the Wolf Pack’s last outing.
The last time the Aggies and Wolf Pack met in 2012, Burton hit a game-winning 3-pointer with 11 seconds left to lead Nevada to a 53-52 victory.
“You’re talking about a bona-fide NBA point guard,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said of Burton. “He’s as good as any player in this league. He causes havoc on the break and in isolations. He can shoot it. He can drive it. He gets to the line a ton.”
Playing good defense against Burton is a key that Morrill has emphasized early and often during practice.
“We’ve got to have some guys do a good job on him individually, but our team has to realize that whenever he’s got the ball in his hands, we better be in a position to be able to help out,” Morrill said.
Utah State has had a little extra time to prepare for Nevada, having not played since defeating San Jose State 86-67 last Saturday. The Aggies will not have another break of at least six days until March when they will get a week off between the regular-season finale against Wyoming and the start of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
“It’s been good to have some practice time,” Morrill said. “We’ve been able to iron out some wrinkles and add some things that we need to work on.”
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.